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Fusing European and Asian styles


Two Dutch brothers living in Cambodia have taken their design cues from an eclectic mix of sources – and created a warm and inviting space that for them is 'all about the ambience'

The mezzanine level is an alluring space with its warm hues and comfortable furnishings. Inset: The extended mezzanine, with intricate balustrades using a mix of design cues, and (below) custom-designed lighting.

Close the curtains, take your shoes off and relax. Sometimes we've had to wake people up!

Looking for a an aromatic coffee - and a place to watch the world go by? You could
do worse than pass your time at El Mundo cafe on the riverside.

Over the last four years it has built a loyal following and remains popular with tourists.

Brothers Peter and Dick van der Poel have built their expanding business from scratch - and their success can be put down to inspired ideas and infinite patience.

"The initial idea was coffee," Peter said. "Coffee is a very social thing."

But finding the perfect location wasn't easy .

"We had a few letdowns, which always put us back to square one," Peter said. "But in a way it was a good thing because it pointed us towards our current location."

The first thing decided on was the name: El Mundo.

"International tourists know 'el mundo' - the world, like a meeting place for everyone," Dick said.

"Also, it is easy to pronounce, good for people to remember and pass on to others, and good for business."
This, though was the easy bit. The design demanded a bit more work.

"We were struggling with different ideas,"Peter said. "It all depended on the location. We didn't have a model, a style, hoping that the location would match - but rather the other way around."

Peter and Dick refined their ideas to match their riverside location.


The retro styling of the counter.
The retro styling of the counter.

"We didn't want concrete, steel or glass," Dick said. "We wanted warm materials and locally produced items to match the warm, local atmosphere of the riverside."

Sorting out the fine details took a bit of time and some long-distance discussion.

"Dick had to return to Holland when we were trying to get the design finalised," Peter said.

"I would be in an Internet cafe late at night discussing design features."

After deciding on a European/Asian feel, the time came to form the object of their discussions.

The use of wood is a striking feature of El Mundo, and gives the warm feel they sought.

The dark-stained tables and chairs are simple and unfussy, while the wonderfully finished balustrades are both intricate and clean in their design, which borrows from the French art deco movement and echoes Chinese design.

The large, comfortable wicker chairs - which almost swallow their occupants - point to local design and add an extra Asian element.
All of these features are complemented by a wonderful dark red - a deep, intimate hue.

"It's a relaxing colour," Dick said, "and it reflects Asia and Buddhism."

However, getting the right kind of red was a demanding chore.

"I found a perfect red one day when I was in Holland," Peter said. "I tried to get it mixed here, but it was very difficult. I tried maybe 20 paint shops, but eventually I got there."

Stairs lead up to the mezzanine level. "We always planned to create a nice mezzanine," Dick said. "Originally it was walled in, so we opened it up."

Peter and Dick van der Poel envisaged a relaxing, intimate area, and achieved this by using simple, natural warm colours, luxuriously comfortable settees and a large, simple low table.

This simple but effective design makes for a very versatile area that has no set use.

"People use this area for business lunches, small private parties, and even movie nights using the projector," Peter said.
"You can close the curtains, take your shoes off and relax. Sometimes we've had to wake people up!"

The soft, subdued lighting certainly helps to induce a soporific effect and lend the whole area a calming feel.

"Light is very important: We didn't want light coming in from every angle," Peter said
"It's all about ambience."

A lot of time was spent designing and procuring the custom-made lampshades, and this patience has been worth the effort to create a "relaxing, intimate space".

Peter and Dick van der Poel have also used their design talent on the well-appointed, luxurious flats above El Mundo.

They are comfortable, tranquil spaces that take their styling cues from El Mundo and are a wonderful mix of contemporary European design interspersed with Asian aspects - the most dazzling of which is the unrivalled view across the Tonle Sap.

There have been a few changes since opening, the largest and most recent being the expansion of the cafe to encompass a cool ice cream lounge next door, called 'Chill'.

Many of the design features have been carried over.

The wonderful use of hardwood is evident on the mezzanine, and the ambient lighting subtly fills the area with hues of blue, pink and orange.
However, the white walls, yellow-white marble, under-lighted counters and white leather seating give a retro, almost ethereal feel to the extended mezzanine, again creating a relaxing intimate space.

Through their hard work, Peter and Dick van der Poel have created a unique space in Phnom Penh.

"It's what we envisioned when we started," Peter said.
"It's very rewarding."

Words and images by JonathAn Allison

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